Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sanborn at Montreux

Live at Montreux 1984
By David Sanborn

Eagle Rock Entertainment

Millions of Americans know David Sanborn and his alto sound from his regular sitting-in gig on the Letterman show. Some either love him or hate for his success on lite “smooth jazz” radio, a label (epithet) he himself eschews. Yet, Sanborn has truly legit jazz credits, having worked with Gil Evans and recorded on Tim Berne’s tribute to avant-garde altoist Julius Hemphill, which is about as heavy as it gets. As a result, he is sort of a giant musical Rohrschach. Such is also the case with his live set Montreux 1984, now available on DVD, which includes elements of funk, rock, and Fusion jazz.

As the title-track to a pivotal record in his career, “Hideway” was a natural set opener. It starts out as an up-tempo funk workout, but takes on a distinctly rock-n-roll hue thanks to the rock-oriented solo from Hiram Bullock, the jazz-funk guitarist who passed on far too young only last year. It certainly is not a performance that would come with the Marsalis seal of approval, but it hardly qualifies as “smooth” jazz.

Sanborn is instantly recognizable on ballads, like “Straight to the Heart.” There is no denying his expressiveness here, but the keyboard sweetening effects are the sort of cloying trappings which have found their way into some of his recordings, making it difficult for purists to embrace him. However, the stripped down arrangement of “Autumn Leaves,” featuring guest vocalist Rickie Lee Jones, is about as straight ahead as it gets, and features another lyrical solo from the leader. Larry Willis, an excellent bop-based jazz pianist best-known for his stint with Blood Sweat & Tears, matches Sanborn’s lyricism with his own eloquent solo. (He also has a nice feature solo later in the set.) Sanborn has hired some well-respected jazz musicians for his bands. In addition to Willis, bonus tracks from Sanborn’s 1982 Montreux set include “Lotus Blossom,” a lovely feature for vibraphonist Mike Mainieri.

Sanborn also has tremendous facility with the alto’s upper register, which can be heard throughout his 1984 set, particularly on tunes like “Morning Salsa” and “Heart.” That combination of peeling high notes, funky rhythms, and warmly tender power ballads suggests Sanborn might as easily be considered a rock musician (in the best sense) as a jazz artist. Arguably, both contexts can be readily heard through the 1984 set, and Sanborn has recorded extensively in each genre.

Sanborn really has a signature sound and his Montreux sets are certainly upbeat, funky affairs. His 1984 set is sure to appeal to his many fans, and includes some legit solo statements from him and Willis. New Yorkers can also hear him live in-person this week during Sanborn’s stand at the Blue Note, beginning tonight through Sunday (2/22).